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"I don't have the victim mentality" dispatches from the Front-line in the fight against islamophobia.

WORDS BY SC COOK. IMAGES BY VERONIKA MERKOVA

“I have been a victim but I don't have the victim mentality.” This is Sahar Al-Faifi, Molecular Geneticist by trade and now one of the UK's most prominent anti-Islamophobia campaigners. She is clear about what she is here to do: “I thought: you know what, I will fight it and I will lead the fight against it.”

To give this fight her complete attention, Sahar had to take sabbatical from her day job diagnosing and supporting cancer patients.

“I spent five years working in the NHS,” she says. “I was at the sharp end of racism and Islamophobia not only in the street, but sometimes even in the hospital or by patients. Because as you can see - I am a Muslim veiled woman, wearing the niqab and I am visibly Muslim, which makes me an easy target for Islamophobes and racists. I faced verbal abuse and even sometimes physical abuse where people attempted to take off my face veil at work.”

Sahar recalls an incident when she was walking down the hospital corridor carrying some test tubes when someone shouted at her: “Don't cut off my head you ISIS.”

“It took me a few seconds just to understand and comprehend what he said," she says. "I didn't understand...I have nothing to do with ISIS, like why did he think that way? But when it sank in, that he just visualised me as someone who's a terrorist; who's the other; is not part of the community; or was not part of society; it was very traumatising.”

Following another incident where she was racially abused and told to “go back to your effing country” by a group of boys after she tried to stop them stealing bikes outside the hospital, Sahar decided enough was enough.

“The truth is, Islamophobia became part of my life,” she says. “Sadly, I don't know what life is like without it. It's just something that I deal with. But then, a year and a half ago, I decided to take two years sabbatical and leave my profession to fight Islamophobia full time.”

Her Twitter bio sums up this journey in style. It simply reads: “Sahar Al-Faifi - Molecular Geneticist by training, community organiser, anti-Islamophobes, revolutionist by actions, universal freedom & justice seeker.”

Sahar Al-Faifi at a MEND training event

Now, Sahar is the regional manager for MEND (Muslim Engagement and Development) South Wales and West England. The aim of her work, she says, is to “empower the Muslim community to own their narrative in the media and politics.”

“Because what has been happening, is that the Muslim community felt so alienated, so demonised that they don't feel that they're part of the whole.”

Sahar says that the message they try to give in combating Islamophobia is: “Be proud of who you are, share it with the world because ultimately, we are equal citizens of the UK. We are proud Welsh. We are proud Muslims. There's nowhere else we can go, so we've got to own it and and lead the fight against it.”

On a personal level, her prominence in this fight has meant that Sahar has in many ways become the face anti-racist struggle in Wales. But rising visibility has also attracted negative attention from far right Islamophobes themselves.

“Because I'm known to be an anti-Islamophobia campaigner, a Muslim, of colour, and a veiled Muslim woman,” Sahar tells us, “a lot of the far right think tanks have been publishing reports against me trying to demonise me and defame me and so on.”

“So if I'm a Muslim,” she says, “and I'm criticising foreign policy it's almost like I’m not allowed. But the same thing, if it was said by a white male or a white woman, they wouldn't be scrutinised as much as I am.”

One particular organisation Sahar refers to is the Henry Jackson Society (HJS), a right wing libertarian think-tank. It was recently barred from attending a Bristol university ‘free speech’ event following outcry from students. They said their Islamophobic propaganda was an insult to the victims of the Christchurch terror attack, where a fascist gunman killed 50 Muslim worshippers.

In 2017, HJS published a ‘report’ that attacked Sahar as an ‘extremist’ after trawling her social media accounts in what has become the standard method for undermining activists like Sahar.

Sahar AL-Faifi: “The truth is, Islamophobia became part of my life."

“I remember at the beginning when these reports were being published... I got shocked,” she recalls. “Why are they saying that I'm an extremist because I'm criticising foreign policy... it doesn't really make sense to me at all. It was mentally and emotionally exhausting to just take in all the time.”

Facing these attacks, Sahar shares a stage with the US congresswoman Ilhan Omar, whose forthright critique of American foreign policy, among other things, has generated a vicious backlash from the man many see as the figurehead of global racism: Donald Trump.

But as we talk in her sparse Cardiff office on a wet day in late winter, it is clear that these attacks have had the opposite effect of wearing Sahar down. This too is a trait she shares with Omar.

“The very thing they want to achieve is to silence [me],” Sahar says calmly. “It’s easier for them to silence voices of people of colour and black people because of the discriminatory environment around them. And I use that as a motivation. Because ultimately, I know for a fact that the likes of Henry Jackson Society and the likes of ISIS and those who sympathise with them; they both agree on one thing: that someone like me should be in the kitchen. And that's it. I shouldn't be out there participating, being vocal and so on. And because of that, I challenge these kind of narratives even more. So while I've been a victim of a hate crime in the streets. I've been also a victim of institutional Islamophobia and exclusion from public life.”

The level of personal pressure Sahar faces is immense, but her determination to resist Islamophobia goes far beyond herself. It is also a response to the fact that anti-Muslim racism is now so widespread across modern Britain and goes from the top to the bottom of our society.

In the last twenty three months alone, MEND has recorded four hundred cases relating to Islamophobic abuse. A massive 80% of these cases are directed at Muslim women and, according to official figures, the overwhelming majority of perpetrators are white men.

“What that tells you,” says Sahar. “Is that Islamophobia is gendered. You have men abusing their power against the most vulnerable of our community who happen to be Muslim.”

Someone who has first hand experience of this kind of abuse is Ayesha Khan, a Muslim woman in her twenties who Sahar puts us in touch with.

When we arrive to meet Ayesha in her home in West Cardiff, she is with her mother who makes us some tea and coffee before leaving us some time to talk. The two of them, Ayesha explains, were forced to run away from their home in Neath Port Talbot nine years ago.

Arriving back to the house one night, they were met by a group of men in balaclavas surrounding their car. It was just the two of them living in the house at that point and naturally they were terrified. When they threatened to call the police the men disappeared, but shortly after a nail was hammered through their doorbell. Then, someone rang the house phone and aggressively repeated the word ‘Paki’ down the line several times. It was the final straw.

But in the ten years she lived there from the age of six, Ayesha went through a huge amount of racial abuse that expressed itself in a myriad of ways.

She describes an incident that took place when she was only eight. “We used to swing around these bars as little kids," she recalls. "So I remember I was just playing with one of my friends and just swinging on the bars.”

“And then while I was swinging upside down, somebody came and just put eggs on my head. And it was like. Why me? Why only me? Why wasn't my friend attacked or anything like that? And these were boys that were much older. They must have been 18 or 19.”

Sitting across from us in her neat living room, Ayesha is warm and friendly, and talks openly about her experiences and the impact it had on her as a child.

“You just feel like everyone else,” she explains. “You don't look at yourself in the mirror and be like, ‘Oh, I'm brown and everyone else isn't.’ You don't think of yourself as different until people pointed it out and then you start feeling different and then you just kind of learn how to defend yourself all the time.”

Ayesha when she was growing up in South Wales. Photo courtesy of Ayesha Khan

This is what Ayesha did, describing how she “was always in fights” and how she had to make herself “like a Tomboy” so people would not mess with her. “Because otherwise you wouldn't really survive,” she says.“If you don't defend yourself, you just kind of get eaten.”

Shortly after starting high school, Ayesha began to wear the hijab, something she says was as much about following her religion as it was sticking two fingers up to the racism she faced around her and in society more generally.

“I never went down the route of wanting to conceal and hide my religion or culture,” she says. “I always felt like, this is me. And this is what I'm going to show people, because I want people to understand that it's just normal. So then I started wearing the hijab on purpose to show people that I'm wearing hijab and I'm not a terrorist. I'm not one of these people you see on the news, I’m your friend and we go to school together.”

Ayesha Khan: “I never went down the route of wanting to conceal and hide my religion or culture.”

Considering she was further ostracised after wearing the hijab, it is a testament to Ayesha’s bravery and determination that she took this stance as an 11 year old girl.

And the racism she faced was not happening in isolation. By the time she became a teenager, Islamophobia in British society was rising rapidly. The ‘war on terror’ was in full swing and Prime Minister Tony Blair had made a point of targeting Muslims in particular.

Ayesha draws a clear line between the abuse she faced and the anti-Muslim politics that justified the invasion of Iraq.

“When I was young, you know, people used to call us Iraqi and stuff like that. So I think that's when it started, with someone calling my mum an Iraqi and that was meant to be an Islamophobic comment, you know. And that’s coming from a kid.”

Ayesha's experience is an illustration of the real life consequences of institutional and political Islamophobia.

“There's just so much rubbish, that the media, and to be honest, the government is creating about Muslims,” she says. “There's this huge thing about Muslims; being bad, being terrorists, being the ones that we should hate, you know, that they don't belong here... there's so much of it. And it's just, I mean, it started from 9/11. Before 9/11, there was nothing about Muslims anywhere.”

Now, she points out, the press is full of negative stories about Muslims: “When you look at the statistics, it's crazy...For every one positive or neutral statement about Muslims, there's 25 negative representations.”

Ayesha talks about the fact that an Islamophobic president is now in the White House and says she felt “so sick” when she found out about the headscarf ban in France: “Why are women in general being told what they can and cannot wear? Can you not just leave women be?”

“When you have the likes of these people in charge of countries, you know, whatever they're feeding people, what do you expect? People are going to follow. I mean, you still have some people who don't, which is great, but still…”

When it comes to the UK, Sahar says that institutional racism is at the forefront of Islamophobia, and plays a crucial role in fuelling more overt types of abuse and oppression. Previously, she says she used to see Tommy Robinson and the EDL (now the DFLA) “as a minority who happened to be vocal.” They’re still a minority, but Sahar admits that “their sentiments are being widely spread and accepted, and they need to be challenged effectively.”

“Tommy Robinson and his likes, they would abuse people in the street,” she says. “This is a manifestation of overt racism, but the truth is that Islamophobia has many other manifestations... What about the discrimination that Muslims face when applying for jobs? What about the exclusion of Muslims from public life from participating in politics and media?”

A major part of this discrimination lies in the state funded ‘Prevent’ programme, which began under the New Labour government in the mid noughties under the pretence of stopping terrorism.

But Prevent, says Sahar, is "another example of institutional Islamophobia." Part of the problem she highlights is that Prevent relies heavily on referrals from members of the public. “When you ask [people] to define signs of extremism, and there is a hostile environment already and a lot of people don't know what Islam is, you will see a lot of people being wrongly referred to the Prevent channel.” This has led to a situation where eighty percent of the people referred to Prevent in England are Muslim. “And that traumatises children, that traumatises individuals in schools."

Sahar Al-Faifi: "'Prevent' is another example of institutional Islamophobia."

Sahar cites a shocking example where a teacher she spoke to in London tried to get children in their school together after the terrorist attacks in Nice. “He wanted to gather all the children to come together and just speak about their views about these terrorist incidents,” she tells us. “What he found was that the Muslim children were so afraid of saying anything about it because of the fear of being referred to Prevent. So what are you doing?You're actually policing thoughts at a very, very young age. And this is very problematic in a society that celebrates you know, freedom of expression and freedom of thought.”

Ayesha agrees. “It's actually disgusting," she says in reference to Prevent. "If someone starts practising their religion a little bit more or starts wearing a scarf or something, that's a cause for concern. Can people just not practice their religion without you saying that they're a terrorist or an extremist?”

If all these factors have been building up over the past twenty years, then they have contributed to a situation today where Islamophobia has become mainstream.

Sohaib Khan is an activist and worker in Cardiff who moved here from Pakistan. Speaking at a meeting on Islamophobia in Cardiff city centre, he explains how this relationship has worked:

"When we think about Islamophobic racism in Europe," he says. "It helps not to start with the far right, but to start with the so-called extreme centre politicians, who’ve used Islamophobia for almost two decades now to divide and divert attention from the economic problems which their policies have created."

A watermark moment for this kind of racism came in 2016, when Zac Goldsmith ran for London Mayor on the back of a viciously anti-Muslim ticket against Sadiq Khan. Sohaib says the campaign was "despicable" and "Shows how Islamophobia has an electoral strategy in the UK." What followed, of course, was an EU membership referendum that was often dominated by racism.

"There were serious problems with the Brexit referendum." Sohaib says. "That picture Nigel Farage used of refugees, that just shows the racism of the referendum but I think [Brexit] is a complicated issue. To challenge post-Brexit racism, it would help if it's not just seen in the way of 'non-racists are remain and racists are leave', because people voted for different reasons"

"In terms of fascist movements today... I don't think Brexit is the main thing for them. I think actually when they start talking about Muslim rape gangs and stuff, I think that's when they get into the harder forms of racism and start mobilising people on the streets."

He references his own experience in the UK as a Muslim and how the conversation around immigration and Brexit rarely acknowledges the problems people like him face. "I've been living here for 10 years. I think in those 10 years, I've made about six visa applications. In total, I've spent about £15,000 pounds".

For Sahar, the referendum marked a point where Islamophobic abuse went up and became more visible:

“Without a doubt after Brexit there has been a sharp increase, and people now have the audacity more to abuse,” she says. One case that she talks about in this context, and which she is currently dealing with, concerns a Muslim woman from Newport, South Wales.

“[She] wears the face veil and she's got her own shop in the City centre of Newport selling traditional clothing,” Sahar explains. “And one day when she was walking to her shop a man pulled off her niqab and she could not, you know, pick herself up because of the shock. So she just fell on the ground and she was crying. She was so traumatised after this event that she closed her shop completely. She just doesn't want to work anymore."

A shop forced to close following an Islamophobic attack, Newport.

The assault Sahar describes took place near the multicultural area of Pill in the city centre. We arrive there on a cold and grey afternoon in early April. The women in the shop next door - who run a hair and beauty business - tell us how they heard a scream on the morning of the attack. They ran out to see the woman in the doorway, by which point her attacker had fled.

Outside, close to where the incident happened, we meet Farzal and his brother, who run a small pound shop on the far end of Commercial Road. Farzal has lived in Newport for 30 years and was shocked to hear of the attack outside the clothing shop. The area, he says, generally has a bad reputation:

The shop run by Farzal and his brother. Pill, Newport.

“Outsiders don’t come to Pill coz its labelled as a rough area. Prostitution, drugs, violence and all that caper. But I think that’s all died down now,” he tells us.

I ask Farzal about his own experience of Islamophobia. “Well I think [Islamophobia] has been going on for quite a while now,” he says. “It’s not just been recent years. It’s been well before that and I think just eventually it’s coming out from underneath the sheets. Islamophobia and all this terrorist stuff was there years ago it just wasn't recognised that much.”

Pill, he says, thrives on its history of multiculturalism:“You got a lot of Africans, you gotta lot of Czech Republicans, Slovakians, Romanians, you gotta lot of Pakistanis, Bengalis, Arabs, Somalians... everyone’s getting along. Everyone’s bringing their own ethnic background into Newport.”

On the day we talk, the results have just come in for the Newport West by-election. Although a win for Labour, the UKIP candidate Neil Hamilton, polled over two thousand votes. But even though Farzal finds this worrying, he believes Newport would come together if the far right and Hamilton's friend Tommy Robinson came to town.

“I think if he came to Newport he wouldn't stand a chance because [lots] of people in Newport are Muslim and you’ve got a lot of white people who actually got Muslim families and cousins and relatives. And you’ve got a lot of Muslim people in Pill that got white families. My friend's got children with a white person and they all getting along and if anything did happen like this, I think they would actually stand next to us and say, 'we’re with you.'”

Back in the shop that neighbours the clothing business that was forced to close, the women explain that they understand an investigation is taking place. The police checked CCTV, they say, but it's doubtful anything will come from it.

It is not hard to detect a general lack of faith amongst the Muslim community in the ability and even willingness of the police to catch Islamophobic perpetrators. In general, people usually feel like they are treated as suspects before they are victims.

Unfortunately, this was often the experience of Ayesha. “We reported all the incidents to the police but nothing happened. They didn't take it serious,” she says. “Honestly, you know, with the police, I really don't have any confidence. I can say that. Hand on heart, I don't have any confidence with the police."

This account fits with the idea of Islamophobia as a form of racism which permeates the state through programmes like Prevent and excludes Muslims from public life.

It may come as little surprise to many that the Conservative party has seen several prominent members exposed for propagating deeply Islamophobic views. The Tories have tried contain the issue by making out that it has nothing to do with the party leadership, but Sahar is clear about where responsibility lies:

"What you see is that it's not only people in the streets now abusing [Muslim] women, but people like Boris Johnson - the white men in suits - describing women who look like me, saying we look like letter boxes and bank robbers. So you see that this normalisation trickles down from top to bottom."

The moment where this process came to its most horrifying conclusion was the atrocity the world witnessed in Christchurch, New Zealand. On the 15th March, in the Riccarton suburb of the city, a gunman entered the Al Noor Mosque during Friday prayer and opened fire, killing 50 Muslim worshippers and injuring a further 50. It was one of the most horrifying incidents of far right terror since the second world war.

"I'm so upset. Like it's really shook me and it's really shook all the Muslims to the core," Ayesha says. "It just makes me want to cry. It just reminds me of the similar feelings I had when Grenfell tower happened. But for this, it was, you know, it was on purpose. It was planned."

Ayesha was able to take some comfort from the reaction of people in New Zealand. "They were doing the Adhan - the call to prayer - in public and it was just so nice to see."

But she contrasts this with the response of the British Prime Minister, Theresa May: "She writes a tweet or something about it, saying how tragic it is. Not mentioning anything to do with Muslims at all, not even the word, because they don't want to associate the word Muslims as something we should have sympathy with. The only time they'll use the word Muslim or Islam is when they’re linking it towards terrorism or something."

On a personal level, Ayesha has found living in Cardiff for the past ten years a positive experience, describing the city as a "safe haven" for Muslims. She is also a photographer, and has used this as another way to combat Islamophobia. Her exhibition, Standing Up, explores the identity of Muslim women and is showing in the Senedd (the Welsh parliament) until 30th April 2019.

An anti-racism demonstration in Cardiff, 16th March. Organised by Stand up To Racism and Unite Against Fascism. Photo: Ben Rice

In some ways, the fact that her artwork celebrating Muslim women is being shown in Wales' most official state building, whilst the Henry Jackson Society - who trade in harassing people like Sahar and Ayesha - have been exiled from university campuses, is a reminder that the racists are in the minority. And as with Ilhan Omar in America, people are fighting back.

Ayesha's Khan's exhibition: Standing Up, Y Senedd, Cardiff Bay until 30th April

On top of her photography, Ayesha also volunteers at MEND. The organisation is at the forefront of the fight against Islamaphobia and it is growing in size and influence.

"MEND's really great," she says. "Sahar’s great. She's got so much power and the way she speaks, she really gets her words across."

The only time Sahar may have struggled to speak was in the moment of extreme anger and pain that followed the Christchurch terror attack. But even then, she maintained her determination to fight. At a Cardiff vigil organised on the day of the atrocity, she addressed the gathered crowd, her voice audibly shaking.

"Enough is enough my dear sisters and brothers in humanity." she cried. "We must hold these politicians of fear accountable. We must hold the media, that says 1 in 5 British Muslims sympathise with jihad, accountable. Do you know what this means - it means if you are a family of 5, one of you is a terrorist. It means your neighbour has to watch you. It means you are suspect and you're a threat. This is not how I want to see Cardiff. This is not how I want to see Wales. This is not how I want to see the world. We have to stand against it, because guess what...When you have people from the far right like Douglass Murray saying that to have less terrorism we have to have less Islam, it's someone like me who looks like a Muslim who's at the sharp end of this. We face the abuse in the street. Our hijab, our niqab is being taken off. We don't get jobs and if we do we cannot progress. Is that acceptable? It shouldn't be. All I want is to see Wales, to see the entire world more just, more inclusive and more welcoming."

Sahar Al-Faifi

For more information, visit MEND:

For more information on Ayesha Khan's exhibition, visit:

Stand up to Islamophobia, Fascism and the Far Right in Swansea, Sat 27th April, 11.30am. National Demonstration: More Info

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